Russia’s highly vaunted figure skaters rode a patriotic wave to lay down a formidable marker at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Thursday, just hours before the official opening of one of the most politically-charged Games in history.
Yevgeny Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic figure skating champion, justified his controversial selection as the Russian veteran helped the hosts lead the new team competition.
Plushenko, 31, placed second in the men’s short program in a three-quarter full Iceberg Skating Palace behind inspired Japanese 19-year-old Yuzura Hanyu.
World champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov then put Russia top when they later waltzed to the lead in the pairs event.
Russia lead with 19 points, with Canada second on 17 and China sitting two points behind. Japan are fourth with 13 points, despite Hanyu’s heroics in the men’s event, as their pairs duo Narumi Takahashi and Ryuichi Kihara placed just seventh in the 10-team field.
Plushenko reeled off a quad-triple toe-loop combination, followed by a triple axel and triple lutz in his Tango de Roxanne from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.
“After 12 surgeries on my body, that I can skate in a fourth Olympics is great,” Plushenko said.
Even Russian tennis diva Maria Sharapova, watching from the stands, got caught up in the electric atmosphere.
“Watched the pairs skating for the very first time. Didn’t think I would be so nervous,” tweeted Sharapova in town as a consultant with NBC.
The hosts’ performances on the ice set a confident tone ahead of the US$50 billion Games’ first image-conscious set-piece, yesterday’s opening ceremony which was due to take place at the city’s Fisht Stadium from about midnight Taiwan time.
US skier Bode Miller and Jamaican bobsleigh pilot Winston Watts, with a combined age of 82, had earlier surged into the Olympic spotlight.
Miller, 36, began his campaign for a sixth medal at the Games by clocking the fastest time in the first men’s downhill training run in Rosa Khutor, high above the Olympics’ Black Sea hub.
The colorful American was quickest in a time of 2 minutes, 07.75 seconds, but warned much could still happen before tomorrow’s medal race.
“It’s great to win the first training run, [but] it really is going to be about who improves the most from here, who learns this course the best,” he said.
Second fastest was Swiss sensation Patrick Kueng, just 0.03 seconds behind Miller’s time, followed by Austria’s medal hope Matthias Mayer.
Where Miller was smooth, the women’s downhill skiers suffered bumps and bruises before Austria’s Anna Fenninger topped the standings of their outing, but that came only after a lengthy stoppage as organizers were forced to alter the configuration of the final jump.
Fenninger timed 1:41.73, finishing 0.21 seconds ahead of Fraenzi Aufdenblatten of Switzerland, with US veteran Julia Mancuso, the 2010 downhill silver medalist, third quickest.
Jamaica’s Olympic bobsled team, destined to become the darlings of Sochi, pleaded with their adoring fans to stop sending money to fund their rags-to-riches story.
Pilot Watts, 46, admitted that the Internet campaign to fund their trip had been such a success that he and brakeman Marvin Dixon feared they would be damned as greedy opportunists if they did not call a halt.
“The donations were just coming on and on. We had to stop them. We’ve called a press conference to do it,” said Watts after US$178,000 was gathered in total, including from friends, family and fans, as well as sponsors and the national federation. “We just didn’t want them to think that we’re greedy people.”